I've come to know the work of poet and novelist Alberto Barrera Tyszka (Caracas, 1960) mainly through his Sunday column in El Nacional. He shares a page with Simón Alberto Consalvi and Tulio Hernández, a page that's become an essential part of my Sundays for several years now. In distinct ways, they each offer valuable insights on the permanent political and social crisis that is today's Venezuela. Barrera Tyszka will eventually become known to a wider audience when the biography of Hugo Chávez he co-wrote (with his wife Cristina Marcano) is published in English translation later this year by Random House. At the moment, his second novel La enfermedad (Anagrama, 2006) has just won the prestigious Premio Herralde in Barcelona, Spain, marking a watershed moment for contemporary Venezuelan literature.
Barrera Tyszka began to publish in the early 1980s, when he was associated with a group of young poets who called themselves Guaire (after the river that runs through Caracas). The poets of Guaire first met as students at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and, along with the slightly older group of writers named Tráfico, they were influential proponents of an urban, conversational poetry whose aim was to reflect the postmodern, violent and booming city of Caracas. Several of Barrera Tyszka's poems were recently included in the anthology of Venezuelan poetry edited by Joaquín Marta Sosa, Navegación de tres siglos (Caracas: Fundación Para la Cultura Urbana, 2003). I've translated one of these poems below:
It should be clean and brilliant,
like a razor blade
sunk in a glass of wine.
Like a sprig of basil
on the ice.
It should be mortal,
Ha de ser limpia y brillante,
como una hoja de afeitar
hundida en una copa de vino.
Como un tallo de albahaca
sobre el hielo.
Ha de ser mortal,
Como el deseo.
La enfermedad (The Illness) is 168 pages long but reads like a much shorter novella. Its devastating story is deeply rooted in the atmosphere of Caracas today and yet the plot could ostensibly take place anywhere. The book's central concern is the emotional and philosophical implications of illness as an antechamber to death. The story concerns a doctor who finds out that his father has terminal cancer and only a few weeks to live. While he's trying to figure out how to break the news to his 69 year-old father, one of his former patients is convinced that he himself is dying, even though all medical tests show him to be perfectly healthy. Barrera Tyszka weaves in several other strands into the novel, and some of the book's most compelling scenes involve characters that appear only for a few pages.
Barrera Tyszka has made his living as a journalist and as a writer of telenovelas. This is important to his prose style in this novel, which fluctuates between matter-of-fact realism and an intriguing series of overlapping plot lines. One of the reasons the book reads like a novella is that we know from the very first page that death will be the vortex of the narrative. In one way or another, all the characters in the book are enveloped in the uncertainty and dread that physical and mental illness create. Barrera Tyszka masterfully delineates the very subtle class differences that exist in a massive and chaotic city such as Caracas, and he definitely makes allusions to the political turmoil Venezuela has endured for nearly a decade now. And yet, this novel's devastating power comes primarily from the smallest moments of human interaction.
Those interactions are often not fulfilling for the characters. In fact, the book frequently lingers on moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding, even between family and lovers. Throughout the story, Barrera Tyszka's protagonist recalls books he's read that ruminate on illness, including texts by Robert Burton, Susan Sontag, William Carlos Williams, Joseph Roth and Anton Chekov. But these texts provide little comfort against the ravages of a cancer that is quickly killing his father. One of the texts the doctor recalls is from the journals of the Peruvian novelist Julio Ramón Ribeyro: "Physical pain is the great regulator of our passions and ambitions. Its presence immediately neutralizes any other desire besides the disappearance of pain."
Part of this novel's beauty comes from its eloquent portrayal of how even the most prepared among us can be overwhelmed or ambushed by disaster. At an allegorical level, the novel is a study of how illness affects not only individuals but society as a whole. Written as it was during one of the most tumultuous moments in Venezuelan history, one can read this book as an investigation of a nation's psyche as it endures a sickness that leaves no one untouched. But again, the book never leaves the intimate register of humans facing death and loss in daily, mundane moments. The book makes no attempt to understand illness and death but rather it observes how each of us might react to their presence. Barrera Tyszka's novel offers no solace besides the compelling and nearly-physical beauty of his "clean and brilliant" prose.